How to Pack a Canoe for Camping

Knowing how to pack and load your canoe for a camping trip can be the difference between staying dry or tipping into the lake. These tips on how to pack a canoe for camping will help get you and all your gear to your campsite safe and dry.

To keep your clothes and food and gear protected from water and the elements you’ll need waterproof containers that can fit well in your canoe. Ignoring this may lead to a soggy trip. 

You also need to know how to distribute the weight of your gear within the canoe and how to secure it in place to reduce shifting. If you just wing, it your canoe will be less stable and have a higher risk of capsizing. Load up! It’s time to get packing.

Canoe Camping

How To Pack a Canoe for Camping in 3 Easy Steps

Packing a canoe sounds easy, but it actually requires some strategy. Where to place your gear, how to keep it dry, and the best options for securing it so it doesn’t go for a swim are all important factors. These are just a few of the things that you need to know exactly how to do, to avoid trouble on your trip.   

Step 1: Keep Your Gear Waterproof 

Keeping your gear dry is one of the most important and challenging things you must prepare for on a canoe trip. There are many options you can try. Pick the one that’s the most convenient for you or use a combination of a couple.


Barrels are very popular when it comes to canoeing trips. Having a hard container guarantees the safety of your more fragile belongings.

If you have some electronics with you, a barrel means they won’t get crushed in a soft bag, are protected if they fall into the water, and will be safe from rain, humidity and other outdoor elements. 

They’re also a great idea for food storage. Though not bear proof, a hard barrel will protect your food from animals and pests. They can be hung from a tree away from your campsite without worry. The rugged seal also prevents the smell of food from attracting hungry animals.

Barrels give you a capacity of around 30 to 60 liters of storage. This allows you to store a lot of stuff. A 30 liter barrel weighs around 4lbs and a 60 liter barrel weighs 8lbs. They also make good seats for sitting around camp and the lids are sturdy enough to be used as a cutting board or table.

Harmony 30 Liter Waterproof Barrel (Blue)
  • Side-mounted carry handles
  • Pop-top lid is secured by a galvanized clamping band that ensures an airtight, watertight and odor-proof seal
  • Rugged polyethylene construction

Choosing a barrel with handles is recommended to help with loading and unloading. You can find barrels with two different handle styles:

-flip out handles which are helpful if you intend to hang the barrel in bear country but could snag on branches and brush if you plan to portage through dense forest.

-Molded handles which are integrated into the bucket manufacturing process. These are less likely to snag on anything and are a more durable handle that’s less likely to break. They don’t provide the same comfort of grip or flexibility for hanging that flip out handles do.

Barrel packs are pretty essential for transporting your gear any meaningful distance. Like a backpack they allow you to support the weight of your barrel and gear on your hips and provide comfortable shoulder straps.

Level Six Bad HASS Adjustable Barrel Portage Pack, Charcoal
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  • Dual Barrel Size Adjustable Harness - 30 or 60L

Dry Boxes

Dry boxes are practical for protecting your gear from the elements, they range in different sizes, shapes and colors. They are easy to stack, load and unload while offering integrated tie-down points for securing to your canoe. 

Smaller boxes also work great for organization in a larger barrel or bag. Sorting related gear into small lightweight organizers can save you from spending time fishing through your barrel.

The main drawbacks are in their portability. Larger boxes don’t lend themselves to backpack style carrying. As long as you don’t plan to stray far from your canoe or do much portaging or hiking it shouldn’t be an issue. 

They also range in water resistance as some will seal out a tsunami while others can be considered splash proof rather than waterproof. Before loading your valuables inside give it a good dunk and test out the seals and latches. If used for organization in a larger bag, protection from rain or the odd splash may be good enough.

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Attwood 11834-1 Boater's Box, Bright Safety Orange
  • Perfect for use on the boat, at the dock, at home, or in the field
  • The lift out tray is great for organizing small items
  • Flip-up lid provides easy access to your stored items

Dry Bags

It might be a better choice if you consider containers that reduce the size of your gear as well as keeps them water-proof. 

Dry bags are very popular in the canoe camping community. Their versatility as a waterproof container and wearable backpack is hard to ignore. Unlike hard containers they can be stashed and shoved almost anywhere maximizing the space in your boat. 

Dry bags are more comfortable to carry and wear than barrels and boxes. They also have a degree of adjustment when it comes to size, the soft outer shell compresses down to the size of the gear inside. 

Earth Pak Summit Waterproof Backpack - Heavy Duty Roll-Top Closure with Easy Access Front-Zippered...
  • COMPLETE WATERPROOF PROTECTION: 100% waterproof to ensure your gear stays completely dry while traveling, kayaking, biking, commuting,...
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  • PLENTY OF EXTRA STORAGE: Equipped with pockets on both the inside and outside of the bag. A large splash-proof zipper on the outside for...

To get the most efficient use of space: 

  • Fill your bag leaving space at the top. 
  • Squeeze out any remaining air.
  • Close the top and roll it down 3-4 rolls to your gear.
  • Connect the clips for a watertight seal.

Backpack style dry bags clip down to the sides of the bag while smaller gear bag tops clip together creating a handle for carrying or hanging. The gear is kept dry by the outer 500D PVC material and the overlapping roll up.

Depending on the size of bag waterproof side or front zippers provide access to the gear in the bottom. The integrated shoulder and waist straps make the bags comfortable to transport by distributing the weight to your hips rather than your back and shoulders.

Smaller dry bags are great for use around camp, taking on day hikes, and protecting phones, cameras and other electronics from water, dirt and damage.

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Waterproof Compression Bags

Compression bags are your best friend when it comes to canoeing camping. Big bulky items like sleeping bags, pillows, towels and clothing can be reduced to a fraction of their size and easily stowed for transport. 

Compression bags are available in waterproof and non-waterproof material to suit your needs. With a few quick pulls of the straps your compressible gear can be packed into a larger pack or carried on its own. 

Sea to Summit Event Compression Dry Sack, Sleeping Bag Dry Bag, Medium / 14 Liter
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Backpack with Plastic Bags

Some campers are just simply in love with the gear they already have and don’t want to substitute for another. If this is your situation you can opt for using good old trash bags to waterproof your stuff. 

The best strategy is to double down on bags. Put your gear into large ziplocs or other plastic bags and place them inside your regular pack. This will keep the gear inside you pack dry. 

The next step is to stuff a large contractor bag in one of the pockets so that you can use it to cover your entire pack while it’s in the canoe. By using the multi bag method your camping gear should have no issues staying dry, even if one bag fails. In the event your canoe tips over and your gear goes for a swim you can expect some wetness on the exterior of your pack.

Contractor bags are much thicker and more durable than a standard garbage bag. They are a lot less likely to rip with the wear and tear of loading and unloading the canoe. They will also work as a cover for other gear if you encounter rain during your trip.

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Quick Access Bags

For smaller quick access gear, wearing a small chest bag or waist pouch is common. It prevents you from having to root through your gear bags and risk tipping your boat with open bags on board. Smaller wearable bags are perfect for holding a phone, GoPro, some granola bars and other small items you’ll want close at hand.

RUNCL Waterproof Pouch, Waist Pack, Chest Bag, Screen Touchable Dry Bag - Slim Design, Dual Closure...
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Pockets and Pouches

Biking shirts that have small pockets on the back are a useful alternative for holding small items. They won’t keep anything dry or secure in the case of a roll over but any light items will easily fit in the pockets. They are also quick drying, lightweight and made of breathable material to keep you cool on a hot day.

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Step 2: Distribute the Weight in the Canoe

Canoeing isn’t a dangerous sport unless your canoe is off balance. If you’re going camping chances are you have a fairly heavy load of gear. You need to be very careful about where you place your things in your canoe. 

Bottom Center For Balance

The bottom center of your canoe’s hull is going to be doing all the heavy lifting for you. You can probably guess how important it is to have a well and evenly balanced canoe. The key is to place your heaviest items at or below the waterline of the canoe. 

Keeping your heaviest items as low and centered as possible will give the canoe the best balance. This includes being centered bow to stern and port to starboard, that’s front to back and left to right. You don’t want to be nose up, nose down or leaning to one side.

With your heaviest item in the bottom center of your canoe, you can start placing your other gear around it working from heaviest to lightest. This way, you ensure that there are no heavy items anywhere near the ends of your canoe and the weight is properly balanced. 

As a caveat, if one of the paddlers is substantially heavier than the other you can adjust the loading of your canoe toward the position of the lighter person. A few inches forward or back is enough to counter the imbalance and level the boat.

Low Center of Gravity

Another thing you need to pay attention to when loading your items is that none of them are sticking too high up. 

Having a high center of gravity will affect the stability of the canoe, especially in rougher waters where the canoe tends to have more roll side to side. Having gear sticking up will also be a nuisance for swinging your paddles across your boat and passing items between paddlers.

Use the height of your canoe’s yoke or sidewall height (the gunnels) as a height limit. This way, you’re sure you’re good to go.

Bow and Stern

The bow and stern of your canoe, front and rear of the vessel, is where you can place your light packing. This is the part where you can put anything that doesn’t have any impact on the boat’s balance. 

Keep in mind that the paddler in the bow will be using that area for foot and kneeling space so there’s very little space for storage.

The canoe’s stern is aft of the back seat, anything placed here will be difficult to access without rocking the boat. Make sure none of the items you’ve packed are going to interfere with your paddling or entering and exiting the boat. 

Step 3: Secure Your Gear in Your Canoe

Canoeing conditions can be unpredictable. Whether it’s the weather taking a turn, rogue waves from a passing boat, or a simple miscalculation on your behalf, many things can cause your gear to shift around in your canoe or even fall out of it. 

In order to avoid losing any of your stuff, it’s important to properly secure your gear. 

Many canoes have tiny loops on the sides that you can tie your straps, rope or netting to. If not, you can simply use the yoke, thwarts (crossbars) or even seats of your canoe as attachment points.

You have a couple of options when it comes to securing your gear. 

Rope and Cord

Using a good quality floating rope or cord is a practical and affordable option. The only things you want to make sure of is that you choose the right materials, and use knots that are easy to untie. 

Polypropylene Rope

Polypropylene rope is the most commonly used rope material when it comes to anything water-related. 

Polypropylene is a synthetic material that is particularly water-resistant. It won’t rot, weaken, or expand if left in the water for long periods of time. It’s also UV resistant, so it won’t deteriorate in the sun. 

The main reason that polypropylene rope is so popular is because it floats! On the off-chance that your gear gets untied from the canoe, this rope can help you spot your belongings since it’ll stay on the surface. It’s also available in many high visible colors making it easier to see.

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Polyester Rope 

The second-best option is polyester rope. It’s also often used by where marine applications are concerned. Polyester rope is almost as good as polypropylene. Some ropes are even a blend of both materials. 

Polyester is another tough, synthetic material that is widely used for heavy-duty purposes. You might even discover that you own some! 

This tough rope can also withstand marine weather conditions. Not only does it not weaken from water, but it’s rot-resistant. It’s also abrasion-resistant, even when it’s soaking wet! Sunlight doesn’t weaken polyester rope either since it’s UV resistant. 

A single tie-down knot can do the job. It’s sturdy enough to keep your belongings safe, yet easy for you to untie without any trouble. 

Quick Release Knots

Here are some quick-release knots that might come in handy for securing your camping gear.

  1. Halter Hitch
  2. Highwayman’s Hitch
  3. Manger Hitch
  4. Mooring Hitch
  5. Siberian Hitch
  6. Slip Knot
  7. Ring Hitch
  8. Tumble Hitch

Tie-Down Straps

You might prefer straps to a rope since they’re available with buckles, this makes them easier and quicker to fasten and unfasten. They provide more security and a higher tensile strength which is always a plus. 

Wider straps reduce the pressure points compared to rope, this will help prevent any damage to your canoe or gear. It’s important to not over tighten the straps which can be hard to gage when using a ratchet. Using adjustable buckle straps is recommended as it will provide more than enough force to secure your gear.

Velcro or Hook and Loop straps are another great option as the make a secure connection but are easy to release. Velcro straps come in many different sizes, even if you don’t use them to secure your load to the boat they are still handy for tying your bags together to stop them from rolling and shifting around.

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Bungee Cords

Bungee cords are also a good option. They provide security, and ease of use. You can’t go wrong with them either. 

Bungee cords are also known as “shock cords.” They are specifically designed to be shock-absorbent, which makes them perfect for the tossing and turning of a canoe trip. 

Watch out, some bungee cords are made of natural rubbers, which shouldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight. The air combined with the ultraviolet rays of the sun decrease its resistance. 

You’re going to want cords that are made of synthetic materials. Neoprene is a great choice. It’s resistant to water, air, and provides the desired strength. 

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Mesh Cargo Net

If you’re expecting turbulent waters or just simply can’t take the risk of losing any of your belongings, a mesh cargo net is something you might want to think about. 

Topping or wrapping all your gear with a net is the best way to guarantee that your belongings don’t wind up in the water. Even if your canoe flips all the way over, the net will catch your stuff. 

Mesh cargo nets are durable and lightweight. They can survive extreme weather conditions. You will want a net that covers around 6 feet.   

Using hooks or carabiners, simply attach the net to the thwarts or gunwales of your canoe. Make sure it’s secured tightly around your gear, so that there is no room for anything to fall through any gaps. 

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Final Thoughts

Now you know the best way to pack that canoe. Keep it all waterproof, evenly balanced, and wrapped up tight. All these things combined make up a recipe for an amazing and safe canoe camping trip.

What are you waiting for? Get Paddling! 


Beau is an electrical engineer with a knack for DIY repair and construction. When he's not tinkering with his projects he's on the road travelling and enjoying an exciting lifestyle with his young family.

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